An Interview with Mark Pirro – By Cary Conley

I was recently introduced to movie-man extraordinaire, Mark Pirro. In addition to making highly entertaining and very funny ultra-low-budget films, this talented artist has also written books and produced instructional videos on low-budget filmmaking, been a guest speaker at locales such as UCLA and the American Cinematheque, and created a web series spoofing bin Laden. Mark has even designed his own movie tie-in toys.

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Cary: In 1974 when you were only 18, you moved from upstate New York all the way to Hollywood with only one goal in mind: to become a filmmaker. By the late 70’s you were producing your own shorts, and by 1981, you were filming your very first feature. What made you so interested in filmmaking as a youngster?

Mark: I always loved movies. When I was about 13, I was given a super 8 movie camera by my parents for Christmas. I coined the name Pirromount and would get my classmates to perform in a series of short movies, which I would run in school. I loved every part of the filmmaking process: writing, filming, editing, even showing. I had also set up a room in the attic of our house as an impromptu theatre. Friends and family would go up there and watch whatever I had to run.

Cary: While all of your films are comedies, you clearly are influenced by horror and science fiction films. Who are some of the filmmakers that have influenced you? What films have influenced you?

Mark: It’s hard to really pinpoint an influence back then. I suppose Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and John Landis may have been considered early influences. I was a big James Bond fan, and that series inspired three of my early short films. I absolutely loved Roman Polanski’s “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (not the European cut, the American cut), and that film inspired my first feature, “Polish Vampire.” Parts of that film, and “Curse of the Queerwolf” were obviously inspired by “The Wolfman” films as well as “American Werewolf in London." Today, I’m inspired by filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez or Quentin Tarantino. These are filmmakers who dance to their own drum, make the films that they really want to make, and I admire that.

Cary: Your first feature, A Polish Vampire in Burbank, was made for a measly $2500 over a three-year period, yet it went on to become wildly successful, eventually grossing over $500,000 and playing for several years on the USA Network. How were you able to take this no-budget project and turn it into such a successful money-maker?

Mark: I suppose timing had a lot to do with it. The movie was finished in the early 80s, when home video was relatively new. While video stores were battling studios for content, we had a brand new film ready to hit the market. There were no ‘made for video’ films at that time, so we just happened to have a product available when there was a need for it. The fact that it made money was a shock to everyone involved, because the film was never made to sell. The intent was to use it as a showcase to possibly lead to other work. We shot the film in super 8, which was the media of home movies at the time (weddings, birthday parties, bar mitzvahs, etc.), so we never thought it had commercial value. No theatres were equipped to run super 8 and when we started shooting it, in 1981, there were no VHS machines in every home. When we premiered the movie at a theatre in West Los Angeles, we had to bring in super 8 projectors for the event.

Cary: You are a one-man production studio, often writing, directing, acting, scoring, and producing your own features. Do you have a favorite filmmaking job?

Mark: I love the whole filmmaking process, from writing, casting, shooting, editing, posting, and ultimately premiering. Each part of the process has its own rewards. The writing part allows you to be isolated and create your world. The casting part allows you to fill in slots and watch it take shape. I will cast with people I know or have worked with before, but there are always one or more new people that come on board with each film, and that’s always fun to bring new people into the ensemble. The shooting part is fun because every day is different. You never know what you’re up against. Practically every film I do will have at least one actor flake on me. Sometimes I try to guess which ones it will be. I rarely act in my own films, and if I do, it’s usually to fill a void left by some other actor who either flaked out on me or just out of convenience. I starred in “Polish Vampire” because my lead actor, Eddie Deezen, quit after a month or so of production. I didn’t have time to re-cast, so I just jumped in the role. He quit on a Wednesday and we were scheduled to shoot on Friday, so I became the lead and re-wrote him out as we went along. Over the years, I’ve learned to sort of recognize the early signs of flake-dom, so when I sense an actor is about to pose a problem, I will immediately start working on re-writing the script. That way, if I’m right and they do flake out, I have a ready alternative. With my last film, The God Complex, we had about 40 speaking roles. Out of that, we only had two flakes. It was an easy fix.

Cary: You are also a bit of a marketing guru, selling everything from your videos and books to movie tie-in products such as the Submissive Jesus Talking Head from your latest film, The God Complex. Can you identify one or two primary lessons you’ve learned over the years about marketing your products?

Mark: Well, the Submissive Jesus Toy is really a case of the chicken or the egg question. I came up with the Submissive Jesus toy around the same time we were working on “The God Complex.” I wasn’t sure if the toy would make it into the movie or not. I knew the idea of a talking Jesus head that works like the Magic 8 Ball, and verbally answers prayers was a funny idea for a novelty item and decided to go ahead and manufacture 2500 of them. Once the head made its way into the film, marketing it was easy: there’s ordering information in the movie’s end title crawl, as well as a promo that is packaged with every God Complex DVD (and the Jesus head has cross marketing promotion advertising the DVD in its box). As far as lessons learned, I’m still learning. I’ve never manufactured a toy before, so it was a bit of an adventure – dealing with Chinese factories, distributors, retailers, Internet marketers, not to mention with a few religious wackos who put this toy right up there with suicide bomber vests and seal clubbing.

Cary: Your films are notorious for being made for next to nothing, yet you manage to get some decent production value and quality actors on a shoestring budget. Do you have any advice you would like to impart to other aspiring filmmakers on how to save a buck or two?

Mark: Use what you have available. Many low budget films don’t really take you anywhere. If you have access to locations, use them. As you’re writing your script, think about places you can shoot at. Where do your friends work? Can you go to their places and shoot anything? If so, work your script around it. In my 1998 film, Color-Blinded, I had our lead characters working in a telecenter. Not because where they worked was important to moving the plot forward, but because they had to work somewhere, and an associate producer on the production happened to have access to a telecenter. So one day, we filled it up with a bunch of extras and had the production value of the location. I have a friend who owns an Italian restaurant in Universal City, “Miceli’s.” Practically every one of my films that needed an Italian Restaurant was shot there. We would just use different parts of the restaurant for each film. For “The God Complex,” it was a bit more difficult, since this was my first film that didn’t take place in contemporary times. For that film, we needed biblical looking sets, so I bought seven sheets of particleboard, propped them up in my backyard, and had a standing set, which is still standing, by the way. I would re-dress the set over and over again for The God Complex, each time giving it a different appearance. We used that set 10 times for that movie.

Cary: You are a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in the film business as you have also written a book and produced a documentary, both on the subject of micro-budget filmmaking. Tell us a little bit about those two projects.

Mark: I wrote the book, Ultra Low Budget Movie Making, around 1990 and made the documentary, Mini-Motion Picture Making, in 1994. They’re pretty dated by today’s standards. The book was kind of anecdotal, telling filmmakers how to deal with the ins and outs of no-budget filmmaking, i.e. finding places to shoot, dealing with flaky actors, what formats to shoot in, how to budget for no budget, etc. And the documentary kind of illustrated the book, utilizing behind the scenes footage, crew interviews, clips and my narration. When the book and documentary were made, nobody was shooting feature films on video yet, so I was pretty much talking about Super 8 and 16mm and how to produce your film using those formats. Even though movies could be made inexpensively, one still had to put out a bit of a financial commitment because of film stock and processing. Today, that’s replaced by digital cameras and flash drives, so one can actually make movies for much less than I did 30 years ago. In fact, my last three films combined cost less to produce than Polish Vampire did in 1983. Anyway, I stopped selling the book a few years ago because it became so dated. Maybe one day I’ll consider updating it, but at this time I don’t have any interest in that.

Cary: I read somewhere that you are on the speaking circuit talking about micro-budget filmmaking. How did that gig come about? Where do you speak?

Mark: Over the years I’ve spoken at UCLA, Calabasas College, the Los Angeles Public Library, the American Cinematheque, several local talk shows, and one or two other places that I can’t recall. The various invitations have come from word of mouth, friends, acquaintances, recommendations, etc. I haven’t been on the lecture circuit for years though. I think the last one I did was UCLA about ten or so years ago.

Cary: For the past 15 years you have produced an annual "Marky Fun Tape." Talk a little about this ongoing project. What exactly does a "Marky Fun Tape" consist of and how did this project begin?

Mark: It started because I never knew what to get my mom for her birthday or Christmas, so I would just assemble video footage of whatever I shot that year (home movie stuff – holidays, time with friends, etc.) and send it to her. Well, as one who found home movies kind of boring, I would spice it up a bit with interviews, testimonials, comedy bits, maybe even a song or two. She loved them and would forward them to her friends and relatives. She started requesting additional copies to give out, which I would make for her. Then people started asking me directly for copies. Well, as the years progressed, I would start adding more and more production value to these tapes. Then I’d start putting titles and credits on them, maybe visual effects. Over the years, they have evolved into a 90-minute variety show, which still is basically a home movie on steroids. I mean, whatever goes on in my year becomes a part of the program, but it’s supplemented with a sketch, song, puppet show, whatever. My friends have become regulars (inadvertently, sometimes) in the show. In fact, one of my friends, a girl named Dori, has become a requested star. She’s into the whole Jesus mythology and takes it to the level of absurdity (she’s been known to approach strangers and ask them to go to church). So on the tapes, she’s Delusional Dori and everybody loves to watch her ‘adventures,’ which are one of the highlights of the “Marky Fun Tape” series. Anyway, the exclusive mailing list for the MFT is around 30 friends as far away as Ireland.

Cary: While all of your films are comedies, you have tackled some pretty serious subject matter as well. I was especially surprised with Color-Blinded (1998), a film about an interracial couple and the insecurities an African-American girl has about her color. While the film was funny, I thought it was a pretty insightful commentary on racism and racial insecurity. Where did the idea for this film come from?

Mark: I used to date a black girl, who pretty much only dated white men. She had commented to me that many of the men that she went out with, although they enjoyed being with her, ultimately wound up marrying white women. We spoke about how she believed that it had everything to do with her ethnicity. There are many issues that black women deal with when it comes to relating to Caucasian men and I thought it would be interesting to address that situation from the perspective of a black woman who had one day become white. At first, there’s the shock of the situation, then gradually, the realization that people relate to her differently, until she ultimately starts relating differently to the people around her herself. It was really meant to be nothing more than a quirky little romantic comedy, but if people want to look for meaningful layers within it, that’s fine with me. With the possible exception of “The God Complex,” my films are never intended to convey a message, meaning, moral, or anything else. The intent is just to entertain.

Cary: You also serve up blistering anti-religious commentary in some of your films, including Nudist Colony of the Dead (1991) but especially in your latest film, The God Complex (2009). Talk a little about your philosophy on organized religion and how you tackle the subject in your films.

Mark: I think religion and the whole concept of God in today’s age of science is comedy gold. I mean the idea that in the 21st century, there are still people, many people, who believe in an imaginary sky daddy, hear from him personally, blow themselves up for, give money to and spend countless hours interpreting, communicating with, and worshipping, amuses me to no end. I kind of played around with that childish mindset in Nudist Colony of the Dead, but actually hit it between the eyes in “The God Complex.” Whereas in NCOD, it was just a bunch of religious freaks living their lives, The God Complex basically says, “Ok, we’re going to take these silly stories from the book you regard as so sacred, and literally illustrate them.” The God of the Bible is angry, petty, jealous, misogynistic, mean, and egocentric, and so is the God of my movie. We make him this fat, bald, stupid oaf who wants nothing more than for people to unquestionably kiss his ass, adore him and take him seriously. Of course, he has a hot girlfriend, who he spends most of the movie trying to show off to. She’s sort of the voice of reason: “If you already know everything, then why do you have to test Abraham’s devotion?” “Don’t question me, I’m God. It’s what I do.”

Cary: Speaking of religion, you did a web series that depicted the prophet Mohammad riffing on everything from first amendment rights to baseball. Tell us how that project came about. What kind of feedback have you received?

Mark: It started with a two part episode of South Park that dealt with the concept of showing Mohammad. The joke was centered on whether or not the prophet could be shown in the town of South Park. Well, between the first part of the episode and the second part, which aired the following week, the creators of the show received a death threat from some radical Islam group. This prompted Comedy Central to air part two of the episode with alterations. Any and all audio references to Mohammad got bleeped out. Not only did every mention of the name Mohammad get a bleep, but also much of the episode that made reference to anything Muslim got bleeped. The creators said on their website that all the censoring was done by Comedy Central and not them. Well this infuriated me! I absolutely can’t stand censorship in any form, but I especially can’t stand censorship out of fear. So, as a way of a big ‘fuck you’ in the face of threats and censorship, I created a ‘Mohammad Speaks’ video for Youtube, featuring the Submissive Jesus toy with a turban on his head, uttering words of wisdom as Mohammad himself. The video basically was in defense of South Park and their right to make fun of whatever they want, without having to submit to censorship. Well, the video received over 5000 views within the first few days, so I made a second one, then a third, then a fourth. Anyway, I made 16 of them before I just started running out of material and decided to end the series. The point of each video was to show that some of us won’t compromise our creativity for threats, intimidation or bullying. The feedback received has generally been favorable (you can read them all on Youtube). The ‘likes’ outnumber the ‘dislikes’ by a substantial margin. Yes, I received a few thinly veiled death threats, but nothing to be taken seriously. I don’t go to battle over many things, but uncensored comedy is one thing I will definitely fight for.

Cary: Finally, what lies ahead for Mark Pirro and Pirromount Pictures? Any new projects you can talk about?

Mark: At this time, I’m not too sure. I’ve been toying with the concept of a remake of “Nudist Colony of the Dead,” but this time with real singers, real dancers, real make-up, etc. I’d never been all that satisfied with the 1991 version, and with the technology available today, we could probably make it look really snazzy. I also try to write when I can, in hopes of developing something that I can get passionate about. When I take on a new film, I know I’m going to be spending two or three years with that film, so I had better be in love with it. It’s like a relationship. You don’t want to be with someone you don’t like for any substantial amount of time, and to me, filmmaking is no different. I will no longer make a film that I’m not interested in making, just for the sake of making a movie (unless there’s loads of money involved – I CAN be a whore).